THE CHIRPING SINGSONG of a bird startled Talia awake. Realizing she’d inadvertently fell asleep, she scampered out of bed in a panic. What time was it? Did she miss dinner? She glanced at the clock, once she remembered it was there, and saw it was only a quarter past five. Her speeding heart slowed as she realized she hadn’t missed another meal after all.
Without slipping back into the bed, lest it lull her back to sleep, she leaned over it and looked up to study the map scrawled there again. Having time, she decided it might not hurt to make sure of where the Administrator’s office was as well as where she’d have to go for dinner.
After she made sure their locations were set in her mind, she braved herself to leave.
The hallway outside was as deserted as it’d been hours ago. If she listened, though, she could still hear the soft hum of voices below her. With quiet steps, she turned right and moved to the stairwell at the far end of the hall. According to the map, a major stairway filled up each of the building’s four corners. This one was only slightly smaller than the one she’d used earlier to come up. On the landing to the third floor, she saw the tiles there were of black marble. When she reached the landing for the fourth and final floor, she saw those were colored a sparkling white.
Heading off to the right again, Talia spotted the Administrator’s golden door long before she reached it. The door was tall, almost as high as the ceiling. When she got there, she stared up at it. The feeling of being small and insignificant washed over her again. She shivered. Did her parents feel this way when they went for their apprenticeships? She mentally kicked herself, realizing she should have spent her time before coming here asking questions rather than brooding on her unfair fate. Two other doors filled the hallway where the Administrator’s office was located. They stood as tall as the Administrator’s, but one was made of silver and the other of bronze. As she wondered what they meant, she decided she’d been there long enough and retreated down the nearest set of stairs.
Not far from there, on the first floor, she found the dining hall. The room was huge, extending almost half the length of one of the building’s shorter sides. Massive tables filled the room, each lined with heavy benches. Only one table in the room possessed actual chairs, and it was slightly set apart from the others. The chair at the far end of that table was also somewhat larger than the rest, with gold trim along the top.
As Talia stepped inside, she found the room currently empty, yet muffled sounds echoed inside it from four doors set close at the far end. Trying to remember the map over her bed, she was pretty sure that must be the kitchens. Suddenly, she itched to go over there, to look at the people who worked and lived here up close but didn’t dare. Walking between the tables, she picked a place to sit along the back. She wasn’t there long before a group of kids about her own age stormed into the room.
She watched as fifteen boys and girls talked animatedly to one another and chose a table somewhere in the middle. She stared somewhat longingly at them but with no real idea of how to approach them. She didn’t consider herself to be shy, and many of the people back at Queegam often said she didn’t know what the word meant, yet for the first time in her life, she found herself hesitant to introduce herself to strangers. These people were foreign to her in a way none had ever been. She didn’t know what she should say or do with them.
As she watched, full of indecision, one of the boys at the table spotted her and pointed her out to a number of the others. Feeling suddenly conspicuous, she looked away, hoping they didn’t know she’d been staring.
Next thing she knew, one of the girls was making her way over to her table.
“Hi! My name is Mandee.” The light-skinned girl gave her a bright smile. “You’re new, aren’t you?”
“Y-Yes.” She couldn’t help but gawk, not having seen such curly, red hair before. “My, my name’s Talia.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Mandee gave her a light curtsey. “Did you just come in this afternoon?”
Talia nodded. “Yes, with Kel and Clarence.”
Mandee made a face. “Oh, yeah, Clarence. I’m still not over that ride, and it was over six months ago.” She laughed. It was an easy sound. “I’ll tell you now other dragons don’t fly like him. I was actually worried about it for a while.” She laughed again. “Say, why don’t you come join us? We normally get here a little early, and we’ve already collected some of the other kids who’ll be in your class.”
Talia nodded, welcoming the invitation as well as Mandee’s friendly demeanor. “Thanks.”
At the other table, introductions passed quickly around. Of the fifteen kids there, she learned three of them were new, the same as her. She found out that each of them had experience as one of Clarence’s victims. Mandee shoved over a couple of the others and got Talia to sit in the middle with her.
“Is Kel a Dragon Knight?” Talia asked.
A couple of the boys laughed out loud.
“No,” Mandee answered, “he’s a squire. And he’s been one for a long time.”
Someone else snickered.
Talia frowned. “Is that a bad thing?”
“Well, once you’ve got a dragon you’re supposed to pass a test together to become an official knight,” a girl with dark brown skin and a serious expression explained. “He just can’t seem to pass it. So they made him a squire and all he gets to do is run errands on Clarence.”
Talia’s stomach knotted inside her. She tried to imagine going through the horrid ride she’d been on day after day; it made her feel ill. She was sure she’d rather be dead. It must be incredibly frustrating for Kel.
More students entered the dining hall. They sat down randomly, some staying as a group with their classmates while others dispersed to mingle with different friends. The room ended up only about half full, but Talia still felt a little overwhelmed. Even during the harvest festivals back home, she’d never seen so many people in one place at one time before.
Men and women from a few years older than the students to too old to tell poured out of the doors from the kitchens, armed with full trays. In droves, they hit each of the tables and deposited dishes, utensils, and large containers of food. The students at each table passed the dishes and utensils along even as the servers came down the table and filled each of their plates with food.
The noise level rose as voices and clanging plates mingled together into a confused din. A rich aroma grew thick in the air.
“You’ll need to eat it all,” Mandee told her. “Especially the vegetables. If you don’t, the watchers will get on you and make you do it anyway. And you won’t get any dessert. Which would be bad, because you learn to live for those desserts.” She giggled. “They say they do it because eating vegetables is good for us. Back home, it didn’t matter how much of this or that you ate, but it sure does here. As long as you eat all of what they serve you the first time, then you’re allowed to have seconds if you want. If you can stand it, you can even have thirds.”
Talia stared at her overflowing plate, not sure she’d be able to eat what she’d been given let alone more. But it did smell and look good. The roast she recognized for what it was, as well as the potatoes and carrots. A couple of the other vegetables on her plate, though, she was pretty sure she’d not seen before. She took small bites of everything to sample them all. A couple of the strange vegetables tasted a little weird to her, but not bad. What she knew, she found thoroughly delicious.
In the end, she surprised herself by eating it all.
She noticed those whom Mandee called watchers walking quietly between the tables and scrutinizing the students as they ate. Occasionally, she heard a groan or two as one of the watchers would tap a plate with a long wooden spoon, but otherwise, everyone seemed happy and mostly ignored the grown-ups.
“Have you met with the Administrator yet?” Mandee didn’t look at her as she spoke, too busy soaking up her roast’s juices with a piece of bread.
“Not yet,” Talia replied. “I have an appointment in the morning.” The sense of insignificance she’d felt when standing before the Administrator’s golden door returned. “What, what is he like?” She hoped the Administrator wouldn’t be as overwhelming as his door.
“He’s a she.” Mandee’s eyes were dancing. “And she’s like no one you’ve ever met before.”
The comment didn’t make her feel much better. She let her gaze travel across the room to the table on the far side, but couldn’t see well enough past the other tables to see if the Administrator was there. When Mandee added no more information about her, Talia decided to change the subject. “I understand why one might want a bar for the shutters, but why would we need one for the door?”
Yllin, the long-faced, dark-skinned girl sitting to Talia’s right, answered the question before Mandee got a chance to swallow her latest bite. “It’s to protect yourself from the peepers.”
“Peepers?” Talia stared at the girl beside her in confusion.
Yllin glanced at the boys in their group with distrustful dark eyes before inching a little closer to her, keeping her voice low. “Yes. They’re all over the school. They’re continually trying to sneak into our rooms, to get a peep at us while we’re bathing. You have to be very careful.” Her expression was direly serious.
“But, but why would anyone want to do that?” Talia asked in confusion.
“Beats me, but they do. It’s a boy thing.” Yllin stated it as if it explained everything.
Mandee leaned over to whisper in Talia’s ear. “Some say the old lecher at the cave is the worst one of them all.” Her voice held a tone of amusement.
“Some say the old lecher at the cave is the worst one of them all,” Yllin said. Mandee giggled quietly as her words were repeated exactly. “So if you end up having to buy anything from him, watch out.”
“Thanks.” She didn’t know what to make of the information at all.
“Uh oh, they’re opening the doors. It’s time for our walkies.” One of the boys pointed to a set of large doors on the other side of the dining hall. A few of the others who’d eaten too many tarts for dessert groaned out loud.
“Walkies?” Talia asked.
“The watchers make us walk through the garden after every meal.” Mandee stood up, stretching as she did so. “It’s another one of those things they say are good for us.”
“It’s a total waste of time if you ask me,” Yllin said this softly as she looked around to make sure none of the watchers would overhear.
“Well, I enjoy it. It helps my food settle down so I can have more at the next meal.” Mandee grinned. “Especially dessert.”
The bunch of them followed the other students as they moved toward the set of doors leading outside. A cobbled walkway wound from there into a lush flower garden filled with trees and bushes. Short stone columns ringed the area, most claimed by roses or vines. About halfway around, Talia noticed the path branched off and seemed to head in the direction of a distant hill.
“The lecher’s place is that way. He’s got a cave on a cleft in the hill,” Yllin said. “If you ever need anything, he’s the store master. But if I were you, I’d really make sure I needed it before I went over there to get it.” Her deep frown easily conveyed that she’d find very little to be that necessary.
As the path exited the garden, Talia got her first close look at the second large building on the grounds. In many ways, it appeared to be a smaller version of the school but made of wood instead of stone and without the balconies. Two massive doors, currently open, faced the path. Looking to see what she could of the inside, she spotted what appeared to be huge open stalls. A thick covering of straw was strewn everywhere. The barn, for that’s what the interior made her think of, looked much too large to hold horses or cattle.
“What is that building for?”
“Oh, that’s where the dragons stay,” Mandee said. “Clarence is the only one who actually lives there, but it has plenty of room to house any visitors we might get.” She pointed off toward the other end of the building. “There’s another set of doors on the front. It has a road that winds around to the landing area. There’s also a small lake with a natural spring on the other side of the building and a giant pit for their refuse. How they’ve gotten it not to stink up the area when the wind changes, I just don’t know.” She smiled as she added the last. “Hey, if you’re free, we could show you around. After dinner, our time is our own until lights out at ten.”
“Free time after we’re done studying you mean. If there’s any left before lights out.”
“Yllin.” Mandee reprovingly shoved the serious girl’s shoulder. “Be nice. You’ve already got her half scared out of her mind, and she’s only been here less than a day.”
“Oh, sorry, Talia.” The other girl sent her an apologetic look.
“I, I don’t want to be a bother.” Did they really give the students so much work to do? While she didn’t want to get the two of them in trouble, she relished even less the thought being alone.
Mandee waved a hand to dismiss her words. “Don’t worry about it. You’re no such thing. I know this place seems different and maybe even a little weird, if not downright scary, until you get used to it. So if we can do anything to get you acquainted with it, so it’s not all quite so awkward, and get you to love it as much as we do, then it’s no bother at all.” Mandee sent a sly look in Talia’s direction. “Despite whatever Yllin may say.” The serious girl humphed in indignation.
Mandee laughed with delight.
“So, what do we study here?” Talia asked.
“Well, to be honest,” Yllin confided, “so far it’s nothing all that exciting—history, politics, geography, mathematics— mundane stuff. Though you do get to learn a lot about guilds and the choices you can make. And some about dragons, all the different types of dragons.”
Most of it seemed to be the same as what they were typically taught back home. It definitely didn’t tell her what it was she’d been apprenticed for. “Are there many kinds of dragons?”
“Loads,” Yllin answered. “Red, green, blue, black, small, big, some talk, some use their thoughts to speak. It’s almost mind-numbing, really.”
Talia caught Mandee looking at her excited friend, a small grin on her face.
The path ended at another set of doors, which led back into the school. The watchers who’d come through with them didn’t follow much farther.
“Yes! Freedom.” Mandee grabbed Talia’s hand and pulled her forward. “Come on, it’s time for your tour.”
“Hey, wait up!” Yllin came running after them.
First Mandee showed her where her room was on the far side of the second floor, then Yllin’s on the third. They both explained that as far as they could tell, room assignments were random. Teachers and watchers, however, were interspersed on each floor as well. At the moment, many of the rooms were empty, the school currently at about half capacity. All offices were on the first floor except for the Administrator’s, the Treasurer’s, and the Taskmaster’s. Their offices and bedrooms were adjoining and located on the fourth floor.
Though Talia learned both Mandee and Yllin had only been at the school for six months, they seemed to know a lot about the place. They took her outside to the grounds and showed her the planted fields she’d caught a glimpse of before. Since this time she wasn’t clinging onto a dragon for dear life, she was able to study them more critically. This was something she knew a little about. Each square field grew something different, giving Talia the impression the farmers rotated their crops. Corn, wheat, lettuce, and others she easily recognized, though some vegetables she didn’t. Each of the fields looked incredibly healthy and abundant—almost amazingly so. She wondered how they did it, and knew her father would give almost anything to find out.
The forest bordering the fields was lush and thick. She saw patches where it appeared some of the trees had been cut down and later replaced with rows of saplings. Her curiosity was piqued as she spotted a couple of trees near the dragon’s landing area. These showed torn limbs, and some were cracked, one of them almost in half. Yet it didn’t look as if lightning was responsible. “What happened to those trees?”
“Clarence, that’s what happened to them.” Yllin snorted. “He’s a menace. It’s a miracle nobody’s been killed riding him.”
Talia stared at the two trees and could only too easily imagine the dragon careening into them. Was Kel riding him at the time? That was harder to picture. How in the world could he have survived it? She still didn’t have any idea how he came out unharmed when the two of them landed at her home. “Why would they make him ride such a dangerous dragon?”
She stared at Mandee in surprise.
For once, the red headed-girl looked somber. “From what I understand, he wants to do it. He wants to pass the test so he can become a full knight, and he wants to do it with Clarence. He practices with him constantly. You can see them flying around all day and half the night when he’s not off running errands.”
“I bet he’s crazy,” Yllin added. “Half the older students say so. Clarence probably landed on him one too many times and snapped something loose in here.” She tapped the side of her head.
So Kel willingly went through this agony day after day? She shook her head, not able to understand it.
“Come on, we’ve got more to show you!” Mandee waved them on.
Briskly, they followed the road from the dragon landing area and went around the right side of the school to the back. Talia spotted the small, bubbling lake the girls mentioned to her earlier and the tiny river winding away from it, which turned into a waterfall at the end of the mesa. A short distance away was a large pit filled partway with the same dark excrement Clarence left for her parents. Two men were there, scooping some of it onto wheelbarrows. Later, she saw the two men head off back toward the fields. She wondered if it made good fertilizer. She remembered how Clarence told her parents it was worth a lot of money to alchemists. Could excrement have so many uses? She did notice, just as Mandee mentioned, that there didn’t seem to be much of a smell, unlike when he used her father’s field.
Several poles lined the far edge of the area with globes similar to those in her room. At the moment, however, they weren’t lit.
They walked on past the dragon’s domicile to the hilly area beyond the garden. Though they didn’t get too close, mostly at Yllin’s insistence, Mandee pointed out to Talia where the store master’s cave was. They didn’t linger there long and soon made their way back into the school building.
Inside, they walked around the first floor, and her new friends showed Talia the offices they knew as well as where they went to class. The last thing they went to visit was the immense library on the opposite side of the building from where the dining hall was—and it was almost as big. She stared as they walked past row upon row of books. “Will we have to read them all?” A tone of both wonder and trepidation filled her voice.
Mandee laughed. “Thankfully, no, we won’t. Though I’m sure we will need to read some of them. Not all of them are for study anyway.” She pointed off to the far back. “The section over there is all legends and stories.”
From what she could see of them, Talia noticed those books looked more worn than the rest of the ones in the library. Even now, it seemed to be the area with the most students gathered about.
When they were done there, Yllin and Mandee both asked to see her room. Once they stepped inside, Yllin slipped the bar across the door. If the danger from these “peepers,” as she called them, really existed, would it really matter right now since they were fully clothed? Talia decided not to comment on it.
Mandee deftly climbed up onto the higher bunk bed and bounced on the thick mattress. “Aren’t all these rooms great?”
“Definitely bigger than what I had at home,” Talia replied. She stared at the ample room around her, still not quite able to believe all this space was hers alone.
“It does have some drawbacks…” Yllin walked over to the tub. “Every week we have to empty the water and fill it up again.” She glanced over at Talia. “Not that it ever gets dirty or really gets low.” She pointed to the buckets by the water basin. “It’s what those are for.”
“Yeah, it wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t have to drag them all the way from the lake.” Mandee sighed. “At least we get to just throw the old water out the balcony.” She jumped off the bed.
“But how does the water stay hot?” Talia asked. She noticed wisps of steam still rising from the surface.
Mandee shrugged. “It’s magic. They use it a lot around here. So a lot of stuff doesn’t work like we’re used to.”
“I’m pretty sure the whole water thing is just to keep us busy, too,” Yllin said glumly, “Because if their magic can keep the water clean and warm, it could keep itself full.”
“Oh.” Magic—it would explain the lights in her room as well. As with dragons, it was something Talia knew existed, but she’d not been exposed to any of it before. Magic was something for the rich and powerful. Was the guild so well off they could use it on such trivial things?
“We’d better be going,” Mandee said. “I have a feeling Yllin and I have filled you with way too much to think about already.” She smiled. “See you at breakfast tomorrow?”
Talia nodded. “Yes, that’d be great. Thanks for showing me around.” She walked them to the door. Yllin took off the bar.
“No problem. Good night.” Mandee and Yllin stepped outside and waved as they moved on down the hall.
“Good night.” Talia watched them then slowly closed her door.
The room suddenly seemed incredibly quiet except for the barely audible trickling of water from the clock. Though she’d seen earlier the rooms to either side of her were occupied, she could hear nothing through the thick stone walls. At home, though she had her own room, she could typically hear anyone moving about downstairs or the wood of the house creak during a strong wind. It seemed much too quiet here.
Sighing, she walked to the balcony doors and opened them wide. She stepped out, sighed again, then let herself be embraced by the calm darkness there. The moon shone brightly above. Looking to either side, she noticed others were also out on their balconies. It eased her heart a little to see them there.
Unexpectedly, something caught at her attention from the corner of her eye. Talia looked up just in time to see a large shadow cross over the moon. She followed it with her gaze and noticed how it wove up and down in no constant pattern.
Not sure what it was, she leaned over the rail as the object came closer. Trying to look up past the balconies above her as it flew overhead, she jerked back with a gasp as it suddenly dropped past hers toward the ground.
A light scent of oil rushed by with the wind. She recognized the smell as the shadow rose again, zooming past. Light shone on dark green scales and a figure made of metal. It was Clarence and Kel. Were they both mad? What if Clarence careened into one of the balconies? It was dangerous enough flying a cross-eyed dragon during the day. It was lunacy to do it at night.
As if to accentuate her point, all the lights in the students’ rooms went out at the same time. Faint, voiced protests reached her ears as bedtime arrived. Talia forced herself to take deep breaths, her heart still at a gallop in her chest. From what Mandee and Yllin said, Kel’s and Clarence’s practice was a regular occurrence, and from the disappointed sounds of the students so was the dousing of the lights.
Giving the dragon and the squire one last glance, she went back inside and closed the balcony doors behind her. She changed clothes with what moonlight filtered in from the outside then crawled into the strange bed.
Sleep was a long time coming.